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The Olympics: play fair with Taiwan

"Taiwan's Olympic athletes were turned away at Lake Placid, New York, after a Swiss court, earlier in the week, failed to give Taiwan the go-ahead to participate in the Winter Olympics. The three-man court rejected Taiwan's appeal for a temporary injunction to bar the International Olympics Committee from requiring Taiwan's team to change its name, flag, and national anthem in order to participate in the games alongside athletes from mainland China. However, the Lausanne court has yet to rule on the merits of Taiwan's argument - i.e., that requiring Taiwan to change its national symbol is discriminatory and a breach of the Olympics charter.

No one, least of all mainland China, could have been surprised when Taiwan's athletes rejected the IOC conditions as unacceptable. It would be hard to imagine athletes from anywhere -- the United States, say -- volunteering to change their flag or national anthem. For many athletes, one of the most stirring and emotional moments in the Olympics is when their flag is raised and their anthem played at awards ceremonies. Although the politicizing of the Olympics is widely deplored, such patriotic displays have been an integral part of the spectacle.

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The IOC's clearing the way for mainland China's first participation in the international games since 1949 is welcome. But there can be few cheers for the way it was achieved -- with the IOC apparently caving in to purely political pressure from Peking. The IOC decision to make special demands of Taiwan alone is regrettable and unfair to its athletes. Furthermore, the ruling may be a violation of the IOC's own charter. This the Swiss court must decide.

Peking's participation need not be at the expense of Taiwan, which has a long history of Olympics participation. In other instances the IOC has accepted teams from ideologically divided lands with similar names and flags, such as North and South Korea and East and West Germany. The problem in this instance is that both Taiwan and the mainland claim there is only one China. However, here again, there are precedents for allowing both flags to fly at the Olympics. Hong Kong, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, for instance. All compete under their own flags although they are politically attached to nations with different flags.

The question of Taiwan's participation is still up in the air. In addition to the case in Switzerland, a Taiwan skier has filed suit in New York state charging the IOC with violating his civil rights under US law. The Lake Placid Olympics Organizing Committee need not wait for the courts, however, to reverse its position. The athletes from Taiwan ought to have the same opportunity afforded those from elsewhere to play and compete. Politics aside, it's a simple question of fair play -- something the Olympics is supposed to represent.


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